KUALA LUMPUR – In Southeast Asia, President Barack Obama has taken a softer tone on human rights and corruption in a part of the world that rights groups claim is rife with abuses.
Good governance advocates say the countries in this region need public prodding by powerful nations with leverage. But Obama, for the most part, has avoided openly challenging leaders. Instead, he has spoken broadly about the need for transparency and universal rights.
White House officials say Obama routinely raises human rights and accountability concerns whenever he meets with foreign leaders, and that this trip to the Philippines and Malaysia is no exception.
Yet, if Obama has talked tough, it’s taken place mostly in private, even though history shows such diplomatic appeals are more effective when done in a way that puts public pressure on leaders. Human rights groups say that’s especially true in Asia.
In Malaysia, where Prime Minister Najib Razak is under investigation in a $700 million financial scandal, Obama kept his comments limited to a general call for making government “more accountable, more open, more transparent, to root out corruption.” In the public portion of his meeting with Najib, Obama avoided direct mention of the crackdown on press freedoms and opposition groups about which U.S. officials have warned.
At a town hall meeting, when a young man asked Obama about the corruption allegations, the president said the U.S. had to be humble “because there have been times where we did the wrong thing.”
“There are occasions everywhere in the world where I will meet, and the United States has a relationship and cooperates with a country, even though their human rights record may not be good,” Obama said. “But I want to assure you that in all of those meetings, we always raise these issues.”
Obama has tried to keep the focus on promoting what he says are his successful efforts to expand U.S. ties to Asia, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. The recently concluded free trade deal awaits ratification by Malaysia, the United States and other countries that have signed it.
Obama has said it has the highest standards of any trade agreement in history and raises the bar for human rights; calling out signatories for abuses could make that point harder to argue.
Visiting a refugee center in the Malaysian capital, Obama on Saturday lamented the plight of the Rohingya, the ethnic Muslim group that has faced violence in Myanmar, a country Obama’s administration has helped guide out of decades of military rule. Obama did not mention that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an Obama ally whose party triumphed in recent elections, has been criticized for looking the other way while the Rohingya are being persecuted.
Discussion of human rights was absent from Obama’s public comments in Manila with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Ahead of Obama’s visit, Human Rights Watch said Aquino’s government had detained hundreds of homeless people without charge to clean up the city for visiting leaders.
Obama’s most direct advocacy for improved human rights in Southeast Asia came Saturday during a meeting with civil society leaders. The session in Kuala Lumpur included some of Najib’s most prominent critics, including a transgender gay rights activist and a human rights advocate who was charged this year after organizing an anti-government rally.
Praising their courage, Obama said the two were “concerned about any constrictions on civil liberties and civil rights,” but he did not name any names. His national security adviser, Susan Rice, took to Twitter afterward to call the meeting “a stark reminder of the challenges facing Malaysia.”
“The link between strong civil society and good governance is undeniable,” Rice said. “That’s why we promote democracy and civil society everywhere.”